Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Broadening the Flattening

Norm Geras takes note of a sloppy bit of moral flattening issued by filmmaker Michael Haneke.

[Michael Haneke] There is just as much evil in all of us as there is good... We're all continuously guilty, even if we're not doing it intentionally to be evil. Here we are sitting in luxury hotels, living it up on the the backs of others in the third world. We all have a guilty conscience, but we do very little about it.
[Norm Geras] I'd say that rather flattens out the concept of evil and renders it less than useful. The potentiality for evil may inhere in many people but one shouldn't just take it as read that it is present in all, and one shouldn't accept, either, that there is as much evil in all of us as there is good, or that there is as much evil in some of us as in others of us. It makes a difference what people do, how they actually behave, and if they behave well then their capacity to do evil in certain circumstances doesn't quite count in the same way as if they had done it.
I agree with Norm's assessment, but I think it's worth noting that the assessment, as well as the flattening it targets, goes well beyond Michael Haneke. The notion that everyone is continuously guilty is, of course, a foundational precept of Christianity, often cited in the form of Paul's epistle to the Romans (3:21-26):
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. [emphasis mine]
There is no difference worth noticing from one person's deeds to another's, declares one of the foremost architects of the Christian creed. This has all kinds of ugly ramifications, only the least of which is indifference as to whether Haneke's 1997 Funny Games was better than the 2007 remake of it. If the flattened view is taken seriously, as it apparently still is, it follows that the deeds depicted in both versions of the film are inconsequential. That the brutalizers and the brutalized are moral equals is a filthy conceit, but a strangely commonly-held one.

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